Bishop Maginn High School
The Following Article was printed in the Sunday Albany Times Union.
Churchill: She arrived in America determined to thrive
By Chris Churchill
When Ni Lar Way was still in Thailand, she thought America was like a Disney princess movie. She thought its women only wore gowns and everybody lived in castles.
Ni Lar was a kid then, born and raised in a refugee camp occupied by members of the Karen ethnic minority ravaged by genocide in Myanmar. When she was 9, Ni Lar's family was given permission to come to America, with Albany as their final destination. They arrived in January.
"When I first came here, it was snowing," Ni Lar told me Thursday morning, sitting in a classroom at Bishop Maginn High School. "I thought the snow was ice cream and you could eat it."
Life in upstate New York for the family of six, including Ni Lar's three brothers and a sister, was hardly easy. They arrived, like most refugees do, with hardly any possessions. They were completely unprepared for the harshness of winter.
But poverty in Albany was preferable to poverty the family had known at the Mae La refugee camp. Here, the family had freedom. Here, there was hope for a better life.
Ni Lar seized the opportunity. Now 17, she is at the top of her Bishop Maginn class, with a 4.0 grade-point average. Ni Lar has already secured a full scholarship to Russell Sage College, where she plans to study nursing. She'll be the first member of her family to attend college.
It is a remarkable achievement for a girl who arrived speaking hardly any English, who landed in a strange and baffling country that was nothing like the Disney movie she had expected.
"She has the drive to make herself successful," said Amanda Millier, associate director for undergraduate admissions at Sage. "She worked her tail off."
I and many others have written before about Albany's growing Karen population and how it is enlivening sections of the city. Indeed, Ni Lar's immediate neighborhood along Delaware Avenue is almost a recreation of the refugee camp; her family's neighbors their have followed in their footsteps to Albany.
And I have written before about how Karen students have enriched Bishop Maginn, a Roman Catholic school that had been struggling to find its place. Roughly 40 percent of the school's students are from refugee families, their tuition paid largely by donations from Bishop Maginn's large and loyal network of graduates.
Michael Tolan, the principal, told me he hates to think what the Park Avenue school would be without the immigrant students, who are largely Christians but not Catholic. They've reinvigorated its mission, he said. They gave Bishop Maginn new purpose.
It's almost an understatement to say that teachers and administrators at Bishop Maginn rave about the Karen refugees. They adore them. They say the newcomers are giving as much to Bishop Maginn as the school gives them.
Meet Ni Lar and other refugees attending the school and you quickly understand why. They have gratitude and a sense of obligation that is rare among American teenagers. Escaping a genocide and a refugee camp will do that for a person.
"When I feel sad, I think back and remind myself that my family suffered to let me have what I have today," said Ni Lar, whose great-grandmother was a slave. "I'm very thankful for my parents and everyone who made this possible. I'm blessed by God."
Ni Lar said she decided to become a nurse because she wanted to help those in pain and need, including some of the 50,000 refugees still living at Mae La. Nobody should doubt that Ni Lar will do just that. She's small, just 4-foot-9, but tough — and her heart is big.
In recent months, there has been a massive surge in the number of asylum seekers arriving at the southern border — 76,000 just last month. Most are
from Central America, Guatemala especially. They are fleeing terrible poverty and, at times, violence. Like most of our ancestors, they are coming in search of a better life.
The suggestion here isn't that they are all worthy of asylum or that we should open our borders to them. More than a million migrants may arrive at the southern border just this year alone.
But the migrants shouldn't be demonized, disrespected or treated like faceless, swarming masses. Because among the waves rolling toward the border, there are undoubtedly girls like the young Ni Lar, who would thrive if given the chance and who believe America is a land of princesses and castles.
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